Larry Abrams, an English teacher at Lindenwold High School in South Jersey, never gave much thought to how many books his students had at home – until a fateful conversation with a 17-year-old pupil who was raising her own 2-year-old.
"What are you reading to your baby these days?" Abrams asked her.
"I'm not reading – she's still little, Mr. Abrams."
The teacher responded with alarm. "No, no, no," he said. "I read to my daughter, you can read to her!"
Five years later, Abrams' classroom is cluttered with overflowing cases of books – from large picture books for toddlers to the wizardry of Harry Potter … basically anything a young reader might enjoy.
And those boxes are just a fraction of the roughly 20,000 tomes that Abrams and the organization he finally launched 13 months ago, BookSmiles, has collected from schools and families in more affluent South Jersey districts, then redistributed mostly in economically disadvantaged Lindenwold toward his ambitious goal of 100 children's books in every kid's home.
Abrams' BookSmiles is just one player in a fast-growing, but little coordinated, network of ad hoc, community-based groups in the Philadelphia region collecting used books and getting them to families in what researchers have branded "book deserts" – lower-income communities where kids grow up with few, if any, books to read, and where outlets that sell even newspapers, let alone literature, are few and far between.
"I teach English and see ninth graders come to me with terrible skills, bad writing skills," said Abrams, 50, who has worked in the 2,700-student Camden County district since 2003. Forty-two percent of students are Latino and 76 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. "Being a dad, my own children went to Cherry Hill West and in ninth grade, kids were writing really, really well. Know why? Not because they're smarter but because they had books in the home."
A growing body of research backs that up. Donna Celano, an assistant professor of communications at La Salle University who studies book deserts, said one recent project conducted in 27 countries found the single best predictor of whether a child is going to finish high school was the number of books in the home – "not the parents' educational level or income level, but it was knowledge culture."
Now, the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation is launching an 18-month study – led by Susan Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, and Celano – of book giveaway programs like Abrams' with the goal of making them more efficient. Celano said the effort targeting kids up to 8 years old will focus on how many books are actually in homes, what makes up a good home library, and how to enlist parents in making sure books are actually read after they have been handed out.
Celano and Neuman's research over the last 15 years popularized the concept of book deserts – not unlike the so-called food deserts in neighborhoods that lack supermarkets – by finding the shockingly low number of stores that sold books or reading material in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other cities.
Kids who show up for kindergarten with no book exposure, Celano noted, start school from behind because their vocabulary is smaller. "It's getting even worse now in the digital age, because people are buying their books on the internet and a lot of families don't have access to the internet," she said.
"We know there's a connection between having books in homes and improving literacy," said Jenny Bogoni, executive director of the Philadelphia Free Library Foundation's literacy project the Read by 4th campaign. "What we don't know is how many books … what tips to be giving to families on how to use the books effectively."
Meanwhile, an informal network of community groups and activists has formed to help get books into lower-income households. Locally, the groups include Reach Out and Read, which is affiliated locally with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Treehouse Books, a North Philadelphia nonprofit; Philadelphia Reads, out of Martin Luther King High School; Team First Book Philadelphia; and a Cap4Kids program run out of St. Christopher's Hospital.
In South Jersey, Alexa Grabelle – now a 16-year-old junior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees – was only 10 when she first heard about the "summer slide," kids who don't read during the school break and see their reading skills diminish. Curious about children who don't have books, she launched a donation drive that became Bag of Books and has collected a remarkable 125,000 volumes, including 5,000 to 10,000 in her garage, awaiting distribution.
"I'm pretty much a one-man show," said Alexa, who has gathered books from staffers at the University of Pennsylvania, law firms, and companies based in Philadelphia and South Jersey such as Subaru to redistribute at some 15 to 20 schools in South Jersey's lower-income communities. "Anytime I'm around adults I have my cards with me and I try to find out where you work — is it a big company?" she explained.
That same freelance spirit has driven Abrams to reach out to teachers in Moorestown, where he worked before switching to Lindenwold, in Cherry Hill, and in local Friends schools to amass his stockpile of books. He has also solicited donations from local churches and synagogues.
"Usually these books are sitting in people's houses collecting dust…or go to the library or Purple Heart," said Abrams – but finding donors is often the easiest part.
On the Wednesday after New Year's Day, Abrams had five high school students sifting through boxes to sort books into categories for young readers. While there are plenty of "Upper Elementary" series like Junie B. Jones and the Magic Treehouse, baby picture books prove more elusive.
The volunteers then lugged cases of books across the street – and through the bitter cold – to Lindenwold School Four, where kids snatched up as many as five at a time. "They're like piranhas," Abrams said. "It's incredible, the enthusiasm."
No one seems more enthusiastic than Abrams, who sets up book fairs throughout the school year at events like Spanish Heritage Night. Although he said he's only about a tenth of the way toward his dream of 100 books in every Lindenwold home, he's collected enough books that his project has also distributed some in Camden and Vineland, and he's hoping now to plant the idea with other South Jersey teachers.
"I dream," Abrams said, "of one day having this model take off."